Come back home to the refinery/Hiring man says, “Son if it was up to me”/I go down to see the V.A. man/He said “Son don’t you understand”
FOX News host Glenn Beck has set himself up as a sort of modern, media Joseph McCarthy, policing the words and deeds of public figures for Proper American-ness. He’s claimed credit for green jobs “czar” Van Jones’s departure from the Obama administration, and lit out after anyone slightly to the left of Pat Buchanan for trying to drag Real Americans kicking and screaming into socialism.
His latest target? Bruce Springsteen. The Boss. Apparently, Beck has just figured out that the lyrics to “Born in the U.S.A.,” that most bombastic of Springsteen anthems, are less rah-rah-America and more – what the hell were we doing in that stupid war anyway? And what the hell did we do to the working-class boys (yes, still boys at that point) who fought it?
Springsteen has been a rather outspoken progressive for years while managing to avoid the type of ire directed at, say, the Dixie Chicks. As far as I know, there have been no public burnings of Springsteen records, even after he publicly campaigned for Democratic candidates.
This probably comes from the tendency of McCarthy-wannabes to spend less time paying attention to what their targets actually have to say, and more time policing their image. Scruffy, blue-jean-clad (white) Bruce, with choruses that are often bitterly ironic but are easy to sing along to, passes muster as long as you don’t look too hard. Ronald Reagan used “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign theme song—until Bruce put a stop to it.
But apparently Glenn Beck finally sat down and actually listened to the Boss’s lyrics. Or perhaps a staffer pointed them out to him. In any case, he’s decided that Springsteen is—wait for it—anti-American.
In Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, he mentions that Nixon would set himself up as the debating partner of President Johnson through careful media management. Beck has been trying to set himself up as the debating partner of the Democratic party, as have other media demagogues of the Right for years—most notably Rush Limbaugh.
So does taking on a rock’n’roll musician—a very successful and beloved one, but still, a rock’n’roll musician—actually backfire on Beck? Does it set Springsteen in a place where he can fight back—and will he?
We saw, of course, the blacklists of the Red Scare, where screenwriters and musicians weren’t allowed to work because of nebulous “communist” ties. Targeting popular artists isn’t exactly a new tactic. But is it really a wise choice to target artists as widely beloved as Springsteen?
In an age when the music and culture landscape has fragmented into many different communities, The Boss is one of the few mass culture heroes we have left, one of the few my mother and I can both listen to and cry (the other being Johnny Cash, who being dead is probably safe from Glenn Beck, but then again the safest target is one who can’t fight back).
“It was presented to us as patriotic in school!” Beck lamented, complaining about Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” as well. Of course, “This Land,” which Springsteen sang at Obama’s inauguration with famously blacklisted folksinger Pete Seeger, contains such subversive verses as:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
The Smothers Brothers and Johnny Cash broke the blacklist of Seeger, and Springsteen and Obama brought him to D.C. to sing those oft-omitted verses to a crowd that stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, where I stood wrapped in layers against the bitter cold, celebrating the movement the people had made that had brought us all there.
Chris Hayes at The Nation quoted a Republican for Obama volunteer he met at the inauguration: “It’s up to us to stay together.”
Music helps us do that, and that’s scary to merchants of division like Beck, who make more money from fear than from sowing happiness. The music that day brought us out as much as anything; the promise of something beautiful that we fought for as much as the selfish, secretive politics of the past eight years (and if we’re honest with ourselves, of much longer than that).
Bruce opened the show that day with “The Rising,” from the album of the same title, one of the two most powerful responses to the bombings of September 11th and a song sung from the point of view of one of the firemen who saved lives that day. (As Sleater-Kinney, who produced the other best 9/11 record, sang “And the president hides/while working men rush in/To give their lives.”)
It’s a brilliant, shimmering, hopeful song with a sing-along chorus so simple, so true that you can’t help but join in. “Come on up for the rising/Come on up, lay your hands in mine.” We were rising, that day, all of us. Not because we’d elected one man president, no, nothing so simple—and that’s what Glenn Beck doesn’t understand. Taking down the left person by person will never work, because we are strongest at those places where we join hands.
It’s what Springsteen understands—why his nickname is so very wrong. He is never The Boss in his songs. He’s the working man who can’t catch a break, the Vietnam vet who burns from the things he saw. The soldier who just wants to come home alive.
He wrote the theme song for “Philadelphia,” the first film to really force mass audiences to deal with the AIDS crisis, and he recorded among so many others, Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome,” bringing the civil rights anthem to another generation of listeners. He closed out the performance of radical historian Howard Zinn’s The People Speak with a tribute to California’s migrant workers.
it makes me wonder if Bruce Springsteen is doing in a three hour show what ‘anti-racism’ hasn’t ever and probably never will be able to do.
This is what is truly scary to those on the right–that there’s a community out there struggling together and they are not part of it. To obey is easy; to communicate is hard. But those shining moments where we work for each other and we help one another, where we sing together not because of a momentary victory (because one’s victory is always another’s defeat) but because we are struggling together to make the world a better place. This is what Guthrie understood. It’s what Seeger understands, and Johnny Cash understood, and Bruce Springsteen does.
Bruce doesn’t have to lower himself to Glenn Beck’s level to win. He just has to keep playing those songs.